Many thanks to my terrific friend and ever-patient editor, John Scognamiglio. I love working with you, John. I'm grateful to everyone at Kensington Books, and feel incredibly lucky to be one of their authors. And a very special thank-you goes to the fantastic Doug Mendini.
Thanks to my dear agents, Meg Ruley and Christina Hogrebe, and the wonderful people at Jane Rotrosen Agency. This Honey Badger would be nothing without you!
A huge thank-you also goes to my Writers Group for their help and friendship. John Flick, Cate Goethals, Soyon Im, David Massengill, and Garth Stein, you guys are the best.
I also get so much support and encouragement from my Seattle 7 Writers pals. Check them out atwww.seattle7writers.org
My thanks also to the wonderful folks at Levy Home Entertainment.
Thanks to the following friends who inspired and supported meâwhether they were helping me with ideas, pushing my books to their friends, or just listening to me whine: Nancy Abbe, Dan Annear and Chuck Rank, Pam Binder and the gang at PNWA, Marlys Bourm, Amanda Brooks, Terry and Judine Brooks, Kyle Bryan and Dan Monda, George Camper and Shane White, Carol Cassella, Barbara and John Cegielski, Barbara and Jim Church, Pennie Clark Ianniciello, Anna Cottle and Mary Alice Kier, Dennis Delk, Debi Donahue, Tommy Dreiling, the gang at Elliott Bay Books, Laurie Frankel, Tom Goodwin, Dennis and Debbie Gottlieb, Cathy Johnson, Ed and Susan Kelly, Elizabeth Kinsella, David Korabik, Lori Lyn, Cara Lockwood, Stafford Lombard, Roberta Miner, Jim Munchel, the gang at The News Group, Meghan O'Neill, my pals at Open Road Media (especially Jane, Jeff, Luke, and Danny), Midge Ortiz, Eva Marie Saint, John Saul and Mike Sack, the kids at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Jennie Shortridge and Matt Gani, John Simmons, Roseann Stella, Dan, Doug and Ann Stutesman, George and Sheila Stydahar, Marc Von Borstel, and Michael Wells.
And thank you to my family.
Saturday, August 8, 2009â12:32
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
he blond woman beside him in bed was a stranger.
The sheets covered her to the waist, and she had on Vanessa's nightgownâthe pink, lacy number that got him hot whenever she wore it. But from the moonlight coming through the bedroom window he could see she wasn't Vanessa.
And he could see she was dead.
With her head turned on the pillow, she faced him. Dick Ingalls stared at the bruises around her throat and her pale, gray-tinged skin. It looked like she'd been strangled. Her open eyes held a vacant stare and her tongue protruded from one side of her mouth.
Horrified, Dick told himself it was all a nightmare. He tried to move, but couldn't. He felt helpless, paralyzed, in some awful limbo state between sleep and consciousness.
Yet he knew exactly where he was, in the master bedroom at their summerhouse. He told himself that his wife of two months, Vanessa, was asleep beside him in bedânot this dead stranger, this hideous apparition from some nightmare. This wasn't real.
The last thing Dick remembered was watching
with Vanessa and the kids, and trying to keep his eyes open. For their first night here, he'd planned to barbecue. Vanessa had suggested they eat at the picnic table in the backyard, overlooking the lake. He'd bought nearly two hundred dollars' worth of groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. But it had rained, so they wound up ordering pizza from Gino's East, which was just fine with the kids. Dick wasn't sure if it was all the pizza he'd eaten, or the two martinis he'd had before dinner. Or maybe it was the three hours of stop-and-go traffic from their home in Glencoe to the lake house this morning. Whatever, not long after Vanessa had passed around her special caramel-covered brownies for dessert, Dick had started to nod offâand so had the kids.
He remembered his youngest, 8-year-old Griffin, curled up and snoring on the braided oval rug. Yet just an hour before, Griffin had been so excited about the whole family watching his DVD of
He'd been shushing everyone and telling them where to sit. Dick's two older children, Kip, 16, and Allie, 14, had simply rolled their eyes and let their little brother take charge.
The two of them had bellyached for the entire drive up to Lake Geneva. It was bad enough that they were being torn away from their friends for
three whole days
. But worse, the summerhouse didn't even have cable or Internet access. Dick may as well have been sending Kip and Allie to Outer Siberia. He tried to impress upon them that this would be their first family trip since Vanessa and he were married. It was an important bonding experience for everyone. He wasn't sure if he'd used the word “bonding,” but that had been the message he'd tried to put across.
He and Vanessa had already spent a pretty wild weekend here by themselves
the wedding. They'd had a whirlwind courtship. He'd met her in late April, a year after his first wife, Sandy, had diedâfrom a stroke of all thingsâat age 38. Dick remembered talking to Sandy on the phone that morning, and she'd complained of having “a colossal headache.” Yet she'd still planned to meet her girlfriend, Judy, for their eleven o'clock Zumba class at the Community House in Winnetka. The three Advil she'd downed hadn't done the trick, and she'd hoped to sweat it out.
Less than an hour later, the tearful call came from Judy saying Sandy had collapsed in the parking lot outside the Community House. The paramedics hadn't been able to revive her.
It had been so surreal and preposterous, a woman in her thirties in terrific shape suddenly dying of a massive stroke. No warning signs, nothing.
Dick hadn't imagined ever emerging from his griefâuntil he met this gorgeous, red-haired, blue-eyed creature at the Glencoe Metra station while waiting for his morning commuter train into the city. She seemed so vulnerable and sweet. They boarded the train together and sat next to each other. Seven weeks later, he and Vanessa were engaged. Two months after that, they were married.
The kids liked her all right. But Dick was impatient. He wanted them to feel she was part of the family now. And what better way to make that happen than a family trip to the Lake Geneva summerhouse?
Once they'd arrived, he'd told Allie and Kip: “Okay, I know you hate every minute of this. But you're here now. So you might as well make the best of itâinstead of acting so pissy and put-upon . . .”
The talk must have done some good, because his two older children stopped bitching about the trip. Allie even helped Vanessa wash the dinner dishes in the kitchen while Griffin put
on pause. Vanessa had shooed Allie back into the family room. Though she insisted they go back to watching the movie, Griffin kept it on pause for her while she heated up the caramel sauce for the brownies.
Not long after Vanessa collected the sticky, messy dessert plates, Dick felt himself nodding off in front of the movie. He woke up to the sound of her yawning. “Help me get Griff up to bed, will you?” she muttered.
The TV was off. The family room windows were shut and the ceiling fan was still. Dick didn't see any sign of the two older childrenâjust Griffin, conked out on the rug. Vanessa, in shorts and a tee, stood over him with her shoulders slumped. “C'mon hon,” she moaned. “Help me out. He's too heavy for me to carry, and I'm exhausted . . .”
Griffin was seventy-three pounds of dead weight in Dick's arms as he hauled him up to his tiny bedroom on the second floor. It had a set of bunk bedsâwith his older brother's faded
Pirates of the Caribbean
sheets. There was also a small closet and one window with a box fan in it. Dick and Vanessa managed to get Griffin into his pajamas, and then into the upper bunk. It was all Dick could do to keep from flopping onto the lower berth and surrendering to sleep.
He wasn't aware of the timeâor where Kip and Allie were. He assumed they were in their rooms. He remembered the rain had stopped.
“I can hardly keep my eyes open,” Vanessa groaned as the two of them made their way to the master bedroom. She turned on the ceiling fan to high speed.
Without brushing his teeth, he stripped down to his briefs and crawled under the cool sheets of their squeaky old brass bed. “I'm not setting the alarm,” he heard Vanessa say. “No need to.”
Dick was already half asleep.
At some point in his slumber, he felt her weight shifting on the mattress. He heard the bedsprings squeaking. Then he heard her whispering to someone in the hallway, outside the bedroom door.
He'd wondered if he was dreaming.
Dick wondered the same thing now. His eyes were closed, but he could still see the empty stare of the corpse beside him in bed.
All at once he sensed someone hovering over him. He tried to scream and wake himself up, but he couldn't. Something started crushing his chest. He couldn't breathe.
He opened his eyes with a start, and saw a woman standing over him. She had one knee pressed against his sternum. In the dark, it took him a moment to see her face. Was it Vanessa? She looked so ugly with her mouth twisted into a scowl, and she wore a strange kind of uniform jumpsuit. It was gray with a zipper up the front. She held one end of a thick piece of rope in her hand.
“Whatâ” was all he could say past the pressure against his chest.
She yanked at the rope, and suddenly his hands shot up. He felt something pinching around his wrists as his arms swung over his head. His knuckles banged against the brass-rail headboard, and it hurt like hell.
“I've been practicing this,” she murmuredâalmost to herself. Leaning over him, she tied the rope around one of the brass rails. “If I pull this just the right way, it'll unravelâand the rope will fall off your wrists in one quick motion. Your hands will be free again. But by then, it'll be too late for you. . . .”
It felt as if his arms were being pulled from their sockets. The skin at his armpits was stretched thin. Wincing, Dick arched his back to stop the pain. He tried to kick, but couldn't move his legs. He couldn't even feel them.
She let out a long sigh. “The pills I ground up and put in the caramel sauce are pretty strong, aren't they? I'm sure you're still kind of groggy. You barely flinched when I rolled you over in bed and gave you a spinal block. Your breathing didn't even change. That paralysis in your legsâit's from the spinal.”
In a panic, Dick again tried to move his legs. But nothing happened.
“The paralysis is temporary,” she continued. “It doesn't last more than a couple of hours. In your case, Dick, that means you won't be able to move your legs for the rest of your life.” She leaned down closer to him. “Do you understand what I'm telling you?”
He just shook his head. He heard someone's footsteps in the hallwayâheavy and hard. As he glanced toward the corridor, Dick once again saw the dead woman at his sideâstaring back at him. Behind her, beyond the open bedroom door, a shadow moved along the hallway wall.
“That's a friend of mine,” she said. She must have seen that he'd noticed the movement in the corridor. “And this is a friend of hisâbeside you.”
Dick glanced up at this woman he thought was his wife. He felt the weight lifting off his chest slightly. He tried to move, but from the waist down he was dead. He felt so helpless and confused. None of this made any sense. “W-what's happening?” he finally managed to ask. “Why are you doing this? The kids, whereâwhere are they?”
“In their beds,” she replied. “They're asleep. They probably won't even wake up. They got a helping of the same stuff I gave you earlier. I gave them spinals, too. They won't be able to move, eitherâwhen the fire starts.”
“God, please, no . . .” he cried.
“Yes, that's gas you smell.”
“C'mon, let's get cracking!” called the man in the corridor. “Wrap it up in there . . .”
Dick felt her knee pressing harder on his chest again. He still couldn't comprehend what was going on. He remembered one of the last things Vanessa had said to him before he'd fallen asleep, something about no need to set the alarm clock. He now realized that he and his children would never see the morning.
“You know, I really don't need this ugly flame-retardant suit,” she said. “I'll be long gone when the fire spreads from room to room. But I wish I could be here. I wonder how you're going to feel, lying there, getting hotter and hotter, and listening to your children scream.”
Staring up at her, he could barely breathe or get any words out. “Whoâwho are you?”
Her knee crushed his chest again, and she leaned forward. Her red hair fell down, forming a tent around his head. In the darkness, he couldn't quite see her face. But he felt her warm breath on his face.
She whispered to him, “Tell me you're sorry.”